The two-toed people of Zimbabwe

Sep 29, 2010

I stumbled across this account about a group of two-toed people in the Zambezi Valley of Zimbabwe. Their condition is said to result from a known genetic condition called ‘ectrodactyly,’ in which the middle three toes on each foot are missing.

I will not reproduce the whole article here and hope that the link to it will remain active, but here are the material highlights:

... known as the ostrich people because of their V-shaped feet. They are the Vadoma, or two-toed tribe, and they provide an unmatched example of genetic effects in a small population, for they have the condition known as ectrodactyly in which the middle three toes are absent.

The Vadoma speak Chikunda (Portuguese) and KoreKore, the language of the Mkorekore tribe. Their features are distinct from other African tribes, and their preoccupations are hunting, trapping wild animals, fishing and gathering wild fruits, roots and honey. I could see one of them with only two toes on each foot, in a V-shape similar to an ostrich’s foot – others had web-like feet.”The condition in the Vadoma is caused by a mutation of chromosome number seven. What they tell us is that a dominantly inherited genetic mutation survives when it has beneficial effects – the tribe’s deformed feet may help with tree climbing.

If they had ventured forth – and expanded their gene pool – it is unlikely the Vadoma would have maintained ectrodactyly.

It’s a fascinating story written by what I guess is a British writer. It is written with sensitivity, and generally avoids the cliches so beloved of western writers on Africa, although he cannot avoid some.

For instance, I have always wondered how exactly a “tribesman” differs from a “regular” man. Westerners love the idea of ‘tribal’ Africa, even though the Tarzan-esque meaning of the word ‘tribe’ for them is completely divorced from its African context.

There are a couple of references to “wild beer,” which is the first time I have heard the term and by implication, that there is “tame beer,” which I guess the writer would consider something like Guinness to be. He appears to be startled at the finding that “their features are distinct from other African tribes,” as if phenotypic variations are unknown or unusual amongst European tribes. Some may also not take kindly to these people being referred to as “the ostrich people.”

Apart from these somewhat tiresome, crudely implied references to the “exoticism” of the “native,” the writer plays it fairly straight and writes an interesting account of a fascinating phenomenon among the Vadoma. I must confess I had never heard of this before.

I wish a Zimbabwean scholar would take this up as a subject of study from the many possible angles. Also, if this trait persists because of inbreeding, I wonder if they might not be entrenching other more harmful genetic traits amongst themselves by the practice. And as suggested by the name “Ostrich people,” as the rest of Zimbabwe crowds in on them or as the youngsters increasingly want to venture beyond the community, they are surely going to face much ridicule, prejudice and discrimination which it will require positive action against.

*Originally posted by CM on April 2, 2007 at


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